How to Repair Sticky Piano Keys
Unsticking Piano Keys
© 2009 by Tom King (some rights reserved)
Moisture is the enemy of your piano. If the instrument sits near a drafty window, a door or along an outside wall, the moisture can get inside and cause the keys to swell and become hard to play. Sticky keys make it difficult to play your piano and need to be fixed to restore free motion to the keys.
When I started this project, I didn’t have a clue how to repair a piano. I don’t know how to tune a piano and don’t have the equipment to do so. I’ve scoured the Internet looking for step by step instructions on how to fix sticky keys without success. Fortunately, piano tuners are pretty reasonable as far as doing the tuning is concerned, but when it comes to sticky keys, things become expensive. Being broke is the mother of invention.
The process involves a little reverse engineering. Open up the top lid and study the innards. You shouldn’t have to remove the top lid after you open it. Don’t take off anything you don’t need to. That saves messing up and getting things out of alignment later. Look down in the open cover and you can see the strings and hammers. Don’t diddle with the strings or hammers any more than you have to. To unstick the keys you it’s likely you won’t have to.
You’ll need to figure out how to remove the keyboard lid and cover– the part of the outside case that covers the area between the keys and the hammers. It’s not hard with the help of an electric drill. You can do it by hand, but slashing around inside a piano with a screwdriver makes me nervous. An electric drill backs the screw out quick and clean. It didn’t take long for me to remove the cover and lift out the keyboard lid to expose the keys
After that, it became a simple matter to remove the keysI identified which keys were sticking and tagged each of the sticky ones with a tiny Post-It ® note first. Then I started working my way from left to right lifting the keys from the frame. The keys sit on top of a rod that acts as a fulcrum. Press down on the ivory part of the key and the other end tips the hammer striking the string. The keys are balanced so that the hammer end of the key is heavier than the ivory end and drops back into place of its own weight, raising the key back up to its proper height.
One by one take the keys out of the piano and set them side by side on a table in the same order you removed them. With a small vacuum, removed dust or dirt that has accumulated over the years inside the piano. Next clean the plastic covered part of each key with alcohol and a rag to remove any dirt or oil. Work from left to right again, restoring the keys to their places on the keyboard. When you get to a sticky key fix it. Usually the problem is that moisture has got into the cells of the wooden key and it has swollen causing it and adjoining keys to rub together.
While this may not be the approved method, since I couldn’t find any official piano key unsticking instructions anywhere, I did what seemed logical. I simply found where the key was rubbing against an adjacent key or the frame it sits in and sanded the contact point down. With a piece of medium sandpaper, sand the side of the key at the point of contact. Work slowly and sand very carefully so that you only remove the essential amount of surface wood and unstick the key without weakening the key. Keep test fitting the key with the two adjacent keys in place on either side. Sand the adjacent keys at the contact points as well. It’s best to alternate between any adjacent sticking keys until all keys move freely. Continue down the keyboard reinserting working keys and sanding the sticky ones until they work.
When all keys are clean and in place, reverse the assembly order, replace the keyboard lid, screw the cover back in place, lower the top lid and put the doilies and family photos back on top.
Now you can call a piano tuner and it will do some good. Your piano should work as good as new now.
I am not a professional piano repair guy. For the record, this is just how I did it with my own piano. I was successful, but that doesn’t mean you will be. If you break something, it’s not my fault and you can’t sue me for it because I’ve hereby warned you that something like that might happen if you try to follow these directions.
If you do successfully fix your sticky keys, though, drop me a note and let me know. I searched for days trying to find a description of how to do this and couldn’t find anything. I’m aware that there are some missing pictures, but I wasn’t recording for posterity at the time and got busy and missed some critical steps. If I ever have to fix the piano again, I’ll add them to this page.